Be gentle with yourself.
That's what a therapist said to me as I choked back heaving sobs, wiping tears that had been building up for the two months since we lost her. The week she died, I thought the well had run dry of tears and I'd be able to return to my regularly scheduled life — stoic and unfaltering.
I thought wrong. I was more like an iceberg, slowly melting and breaking off in tiny pieces until months later, when I fully cracked upon realizing the gravity of what had happened.
I birthed our much wanted, much loved, much wished for first daughter, Bella Rose, when I was 20 weeks pregnant — and she died before seeing the light of day. I never looked into her eyes. I never saw her face. I never held her in my arms. I never showered her with kisses and told her how much I loved her.
In therapy, I discovered how to grieve through creativity. More specifically, photography. I realized if my body couldn’t create new life, I could create life behind the camera lens instead. Imagery became the language of my grief when words failed to describe the feelings in my heart. Photography became a safe place to hide from the world, a way to process heavy emotions, an invitation to re-discover beauty in a broken world, and an opportunity to reflect on who I was if I was not a mom.
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Combining my creative passion and my background in psychology and education, I created something for moms who experience the same kind of loss I did: Illuminate is a free class that gives moms who are suffering from the loss of a child a space to grieve in their own ways and to honor their children from behind the camera lens.
Bella Rose taught me so many things, but most of all, she taught me to honor my full range of emotions, to be gentle with myself by documenting life's little blessings, and to teach others that even in the midst of intense pain and heartache, they are infinitely capable of doing the same.
The following are images taken by myself and some of my Illuminate students, along with their words on why their photos symbolize the dear children they so deeply miss.
"Through my grief, photography helped me express my feelings freely. Each picture is an image of what was going on in my head. This one is my favorite. I was finally at peace with myself, my faith, and my body and ready to let our little angel fly to the sky where, I am sure, he is watching over us." — Aline Muzinga
"All the days after loss are hard. Some days are harder than others. This photo was taken on one of the hardest days, Bella's due date. We closed her nursery door after she died, and this was the first time we chose to open it again. In the months following the loss of a child, you feel like the world is nudging you to move on or forget it happened. But it's hard to move forward in grief when there's a space in your home that constantly reminds you of what's missing." — Beryl Ayn Young
“This photo shows Nara's hat, a bit big for her tiny, perfect head. I like to carry her hat in my purse when we take special family outings to include her. It helps me feel like I'm doing something about the constant awareness I have of the space in our family where she should be. In this photo, I am holding her hat above my favorite tree in our yard and letting the sun rays shine through her hat and down on to me, filtering her love for me down from heaven. This photo reminds me that joy and grief can exist at the same time.” — Cynthia Baker
"The image portrays a time of raw and intense grief over the loss on my first and only son at that time. Capturing my grief through photography allowed me to process a time of intense darkness that eventually allowed me to notice the light surrounding me." — Dianna Castellanos
"This image is an Isabel Bloom figurine called, "Hugs", given by a friend to support me in my grief. It symbolizes my two girls being together, and the sunset in the background is a reminder of beauty in the ordinary. Chasing beauty helps ease the grief." — Hope Wood
"I took this image a couple weeks after getting a tattoo in honor of my daughter, who was stillborn. I have since gone on to have 3 other children, but every time I glance down at my wrist I am reminded of the one who started our family tree and helped shape me into the person and mother I am today." — Kristin Cook
"After losing my daughter at two days old, my postpartum body was still healing, and I unfortunately had many well-meaning strangers ask me if I was pregnant — which was like a knife through the heart and a blow to my confidence in those early days of grief. I took this image as a way to remember that my body had done an incredibly beautiful thing and that every line, stretch mark, and scar told my daughter's story and in that way, I would carry her with me forever." — Kristin Cornley
"The period of time right after our only son at the time died was heavy with longing, isolation, and darkness. All we could see were the places and spaces where he was missing and should be. Expression of grief through photography was movement. The only movement that we had at the time when everything else stood still." — Laura Beck
"The Japanese cherry blossom is the tree we chose to plant for our baby because it is actually associated with mortality. The trees blossom quickly, and with such an intense beauty, and yet they only last for a very brief moment." — Laura Kralovetz
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. If you or someone you know has experienced the loss of a child during pregnancy, infancy, or beyond, the free Illuminate Online Photography Class is here.
Beryl Ayn Young is the founder of Recapture Self — a community dedicated to supporting moms in unlocking their creativity and finding an identity, beyond mom. Find her podcast, articles and upcoming class information here.